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New Zealand could see 8000-14,000 coronavirus deaths if lockdown strategy fails, expert warns

An epidemic expert says New Zealand could see between 8000-14000 deaths from coronavirus if the lockdown strategy fails to contain Covid-19.

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Professor Nick Wilson of Otago University says if the strategy changes from “eliminate” to “mitigate”, it could see two thirds of the population infected. Source: Breakfast

Professor Nick Wilson of Otago University and his team have provided most of the modelling the Government has relied on while planning the fight against the virus.

Speaking this morning to TVNZ 1's Breakfast, he was asked what would happen if the current lockdown fails to contain community transmission.

"It might be, if the elimination strategy fails, to switch to a mitigation or a 'flattening the curve' type strategy, but unfortunately our modelling shows that that will often have pretty serious outcomes for New Zealand," he said.

"It could be, if we don't get good control, there would be potentially two thirds of New Zealanders infected and getting sick, possibly 22000 to 32000 hospitalisations, and tragically we calculate in plausible scenarios 8000 to 14000 deaths.

"So these are very severe outcomes for New Zealand, and really they highlight why we have to put enormous amounts of effort into making the elimination strategy work."

Mr Wilson said a change to a mitigation strategy would mean protecting those most vulnerable to the virus - people over 60 and those with pre-existing conditions.

"In our analysis, 90 per cent of the deaths are actually in 60+ age groups, so protecting those people and protecting people with chronic illnesses would be the top priorities," he said.

"In the rest of the population, tragically the infection would occur, but with infection in younger age groups, the risk of hospitalisation and ICU is very much less than in the elderly population."

He said it's still too early to tell whether the lockdown will be effective, but said it was the best strategy New Zealand could choose.

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"We were lucky in a way, in terms of timing, being a remote island nation, this is the best strategy for us and we may well be able to eliminate this virus and then allow a return to normal in a staged way," Mr Wilson said.

Border control and increased testing regimes could help to fight the virus.

"We have to have very good border control with good quarantine to work on the problem of eliminating transmission in New Zealand - that has to be the priority and that needs very intense testing, contact tracing, case isolation, all those measures that we've seen worked well in some of those Asian countries that have also followed an elimination path.

"There are measures that we could adopt - for example, those essential workers that are still moving around, maybe they should be wearing masks - that will possibly give an extra level of protection and reduce further spread.

"But really we've got to ramp up testing even further and have very rigorous contact tracing so we can be absolutely sure that we've eliminated all virus transmission in the community."

As of the Ministry Health's March 30 figures, 589 people in New Zealnad have Covid-19 and one person has died from the virus.